I could have kicked myself. At the 2010 CES, as much as I wanted to hear and blog about the eye-catching and ultra-expensive The LARS 1 36W monoblocks ($90,000/pair), I couldn't find the room. So when the CBO/founder of Engstrom , Timo Engström (second from right in my photo), emailed to say he'd be displaying at Axpona, I assured him that if I didn't get to his room this time around, I deserved to be shot.
It was 10:10AM on Friday, 50 minutes before the start of the T.H.E. Show Newport Beach, and the lobby of the Hilton Irvine was abuzz with activity. Folks were standing 510 deep, in multiple lines, waiting to register or retrieve their pre-registration badges. Close by, at the entrance to the lobby, photographers for multiple publications and organizations were establishing turf, staking out the best spot for catching every smile, grimace, and nuance of the 10:30AM ribbon-cutting ceremony. And in the midst of it all, hotel visitors whose deepest association with audio is that it rhymes, more or less, with rodeo were eyeing the whole thing with a mixture of curiosity, incredulity, and downright dread.
Bless Ray Kimber's heart. For at least the last three years, Kimber Kable has transported live musicians to RMAF so that we could always have a fresh, live reference in our heads as we traipsed room-to-room listening to canned performances.
I've now heard The Lotus Group Granada UB II Loudspeaker with an Active Crossover ($125,000/pair) twice. The first time was in Northern CA, where I joined Joseph Cohen of The Lotus Group and designer/engineer Manny La Carrubba for an extended listening session devoid of all the usual CES attractions. The second time was in the less-hospitable environment of the Venetian. (You have not lived until you try to focus on Fritz Wunderlich singing a transporting Mozart aria while the sounds of Maria Callas suffering through Verdi blast from the other room, and the person sitting behind you decides to discuss the stock market with his companion).
When I entered the room sponsored by the three above entities, I heard first a CD quality file of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, and then a 192kHz sample-rate file of period instrument violinist Rachel Podger playing Bach. I thought the system wonderful at handling complex information, keeping everything clean, and controlling the basssuperb in fact. The only question arose when, on an SACD of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Handel, the voice was somewhat damped.
The imposing Lotus Group Granada UB II loudspeaker ($125,000/pair), complete with an active crossover and Feastrex Type II field-coil driver, was sounding the best I've ever heard it. The system as a whole was a bit dark for my taste, but a track from Esperanza Spalding's new disc, Chamber Music Society, was just beautiful. Everyone in the room loved it.
We audiophiles can't resist pushing the boundaries of intimacy. Step on those cables, jostle them ampswe just gotta take a look at what's going on from all angles. Trying not to do permanent damage, here's what I spied on the back of Lowther America's Field-Coil EXR Open-Baffle loudspeaker (estimated price of $15,000/pair).
The unquestionable sonic high point of my second day at CES was the opportunity to hear two of the larger, floorstanding speakers in the line that has already brought us the much-touted $20,000/pair Magico Mini "bookshelf." The largest and most expensive of the pair is the $120,000/pair M6 (Model 6). First released one year ago, this four-way floorstander includes three 10" woofers, one 7" mid-bass driver, one 5" midrange unit, and an air motion-transformer tweeter. Weighing 650 lbs, with an enclosure of extruded aluminum, the speaker is said to extend from 28Hz to 50kHz, with a 90dB sensitivity and a 4 ohm impedance. The M6 recently won the Grand Prix Award from Japanese magazine Stereo Sound, and was featured on the cover of its December 2006 issue.
Magico's MRack ($30,000$50,000, depending upon configuration) absorbs and dissipates energy with the same constrained-layer damping mechanism employed in the Magico QPod equipment supports that Michael Fremer raved about in his June 2012 "Analog Corner" column, and that I use under my transport and DAC. Constructed of 500 lbs of aluminum, copper, and damping compound, the MRack is a byproduct of the R&D Magico put it into their Q series of loudspeakers. "Think of the MRack as a giant QPod," says Magico's Alon Wolf.
New Zealand-based Plinius is now using words drawn from the Maori language to name all of its new products. Making truly beautiful sounds in an all-Plinius line-up, the new Tautoro linestage preamplifier ($7300), set to ship in May, fulfilled its promise to "bridge the gap" from Plinius' top-of-the-line SA-Reference power amplifier to its CD-101 CD player and Koru phono stage (available as an option for $8600 total). When I asked Scott Markwell of Elite Audio Video Distribution how the preamp differs from its M8 predecessor, he pointed out that the M8 could only function as a linestage. "The more versatile Tautoro has an even bigger, more three dimensional soundstage. It also has much greater bass, more punch, and increased dynamics."